August 14, 2023
By Hope Salvatori

When conducting surveys, there are two ways to approach a questionnaire: structured questions and unstructured questions. Some surveys will be best suited to structured questions, some to unstructured, and some may benefit from leveraging both question types.

Here’s a quick guide to help you understand the difference between structured vs. Unstructured questions so you can get the most out of your surveys.

Structured vs. unstructured questions

The primary difference between structured and unstructured questions is the type of data or feedback you’ll receive. When asking structured questions, you’ll receive quantitative responses – in other words, data that can be measured and used to quickly compare respondents’ answers to create quantifiable insights.

Unstructured questions will generally offer the opposite type of feedback: qualitative. If you’re looking for detailed, in-depth feedback, unstructured questions may be the way to go. That said, while they’ll give you deeper insights into individual respondents, you’ll have a harder time comparing respondents’ answers.

So, how do you know when to use structured vs. Unstructured questions? Let’s break these question types down a bit more.

What is a Structured Question?  

Structured questions are closed-ended questions that allow for limited, quick, and quantitative responses. These types of questions can therefore be quickly answered by respondents and easily compared by survey analysts.

Benefits of structured survey questions

Structured survey questions are often the best format for questionnaires – especially when working with a large sample size or when you need to be able to quickly compare responses and act on the feedback received.
Here are the main benefits of leveraging structured questions in surveys:

  1. High response rate: because structured questions take less time to answer than open-ended questions, you’ll likely get a higher response rate, as this format is easier on respondents.
  2.  Clarity & accuracy: structured questions provide clear instructions and are easy for respondents to understand and answer accurately.
  3. Consistency & comparability: by asking respondents the same questions with the same possible answers, you can easily compare responses with the help of consistent data.
  4. Relevancy: by limiting responses, structured questions help ensure the data collected is relevant to your survey objectives.
  5. Efficiency: structured questions can be asked, answered, and analysed quickly, which makes them an efficient way to collect and analyse large amounts of data.
  6. Analysis: structured questions make it easier to analyse data, which can help you identify trends, patterns, and insights that can inform decision-making. This includes comparing data from different groups or surveys using the same questions.

structured vs unstructured feedback

Types of structured questions

Structured questions can appear in many forms, including:

1. Multiple-choice questions: Respondents may select one or more answers.

  • E.g.: From the following list of social media platforms, please select each platform you use to promote your events.

2. Single-choice questions: Respondents may select only one answer.

  • E.g.: Which event format do you most prefer?

3. Dichotomous questions: Respondents must choose between two options, such as “yes or no” or “true or false.”

4. Ranking questions: Respondents must rank a list of options (in order of preference, importance, likelihood, etc.)

5. Linkert scale questions: Respondents must rate their level of agreement or disagreement, typically on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 7, using terms like “strongly agree,” “neither agree nor disagree,” etc.

  • E.g.: How strongly do you agree with the statement, “I made many valuable contacts during this event.” (Answers range from strongly agree to strongly disagree.)

6. Semantic differential questions: Though the name is complicated, the questions aren’t. Respondents are asked to rate a concept, experience, etc. Using opposing adjectives, such as good/bad or happy/sad.

  • E.g.: How likely are you to recommend this event to others? (Answers could include: definitely would recommend, likely, uncertain, unlikely, would not recommend.)

7. Matrix questions: Respondents are asked to rate a series of items on a common scale – usually in a table or grid.

  • E.g.: Please rate the following event experiences on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is poor and 5 is excellent:







Welcome reception






Keynote speaker






Networking luncheon






Drawbacks of structured questions

While structured questions have many benefits, there are two major drawbacks worth noting.

  1. Limited responses: sometimes, less is not more. If you’re looking for deep insights and an expansive understanding of respondents’ answers, you might be better served by unstructured questions. You might also miss out on great insights if respondents are limited in the opinions and insights they can share.
  2. Leading or biased questions: structured questions run the risk of influencing respondents’ answers if they’re phrased in a leading or biased way. For example, the question, “most attendees say our event is the best in the industry. Do you agree?” Assumes the event is the best – it’s up to respondents to say yes or no, but they’re being persuaded there’s a right answer.

What is an unstructured question?

Unstructured questions, or open-ended questions, allow for the collection of qualitative data by asking questions with less limited answer formats. These types of questions often require “short answer” responses.

These types of questions allow respondents to address their views openly without being limited by answer format or choices.

Benefits of unstructured survey questions

Unstructured questions can be a useful research tool for gathering rich insights. Here are some of the benefits of asking unstructured questions:

  1. Flexibility: unstructured questions allow respondents to express their views openly and in their own words, which can allow for more detailed, nuanced responses than structured questions.
  2. Depth of understanding: unstructured questions can allow respondents to include details and opinions that offer deeper insights into their perspectives.
  3. Context: unstructured questions can be paired with other structured or unstructured questions to provide further insight into respondents’ answers.
  4.  New ideas: unstructured questions can generate new ideas that can be useful for turning survey feedback into actionable insights, product development, etc.
  5. Expanded knowledge set: it’s easy to leave out valuable insights when asking structured questions, but you might not always know what’s missing. With unstructured questions, you can help expand your knowledge set and improve future surveys by asking respondents for insight into “what’s missing.”

Types of unstructured questions

Unstructured questions are always open-ended and seek unique responses. These questions can be approached from many angles depending on the type of information you’re looking for, including:

1.    Attitude questions: These are questions that allow respondents to provide free-form opinions about a topic.

  • E.g.: What did you like most about our event this year?

2.    Probing questions: These are questions that ask respondents to clarify or expand on a previous response. Note: probing questions can be asked after structured or unstructured questions.

  • E.g.: Why did you select your answer above?

3.    Hypothetical questions: Respondents are asked to imagine a hypothetical scenario and describe their reaction.

  • E.g.: If we held our event in orlando, florida, how would that change your experience?

4.    Recommendation questions: These questions allow respondents to offer recommendations for specific areas of interest.

  • E.g.: What are two ways we could make this event more accessible?

Drawbacks of unstructured questions

Unstructured survey questions have several drawbacks – most of which can be combatted by asking structured questions instead. The drawbacks of open-ended questions include:

  1. Lower response rate: because unstructured questions can take a while to answer, you’ll likely get a lower response rate, as this format creates more work for respondents.
  2. Lack of clarity & accuracy: unstructured questions can be misunderstood or interpreted in different ways, leading to inconsistent responses.
  3.  Lack of consistency & comparability: because there are no standard response options, it is difficult to compare responses or replicate the study across different groups or surveys.
  4. Irrelevant or incomplete information: when respondents aren’t limited in their responses, they may submit answers that don’t directly answer questions or aren’t relevant to your study.
  5. Difficult to analyse: without predefined responses, unstructured questions make it more difficult to analyse data to identify trends, patterns, and insights that can inform decision-making.

Making your choice: structured vs. unstructured questions

Clearly, there isn’t one right answer when deciding whether to leverage structured or unstructured questions in your surveys. While the benefits of structured questions will often win out if you need quantitative, easily analysed data, there’s something to be said for the deep insights to be gained from open-ended questionnaires.

For best results, you’ll likely need to strike a balance between the two in your questionnaire. While you might use structured questions most, carefully evaluate where an unstructured question can add value.

Want to make the questionnaire process easier? Check out our survey solutions for event feedback and more.

Hope Swedeen

Hope Salvatori

Hope is a Senior Content Marketing Associate who has been with Cvent for more than two years. She has 8 years of experience producing content for corporations, small businesses, associations, nonprofits, and universities. As a content professional, she has created content for a wide range of industries, including meetings and events, government and defense, education, health, and more.

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